Future of Conservatism

January 4, 1974

A document from the CQ Researcher archives:

Report Outline
Watergate and Status of Conservatism
Conservative Tradition in American Life
Swings in Expectations for Conservatism
Special Focus

Watergate and Status of Conservatism

The new year 1974 brings into question whether the Watergate disclosures and the Agnew resignation have done great harm to the cause of conservatism, which only a year earlier was being viewed as the wave of the future. The Republican Party is generally considered the natural “home” of the conservative tradition in American politics and, according to the findings of public-opinion polls, it has suffered a loss of support in the Watergate aftermath.

While the problems of the Nixon administration during the past year have muted its talk of a “new majority” in American politics drawn from conservative constituencies, there is little evidence that the conservative tradition has lost its footing. About all that can be said for sure at this time is that the events of the past year have demonstrated, once again, that the play between conservatism and liberalism is a continuing factor in American polity regardless of the vicissitudes of political life. The balance may tilt from time to time due to changing circumstances or the influence of particular political personalities, but the shifts usually refer to specific issues of the moment rather than to guiding principles of government.

The future of conservatism in the United States can no more be foreseen than the future of liberalism.1 Both concepts are likely to be around for some time and continue to influence policy in different ways, sometimes merging their interests, at other times pulling sharply apart. Actually the lines of demarcation between the two traditions are not always too clear. Changing circumstances give different colorations to conservative or liberal positions. Individual politicians or political factions often combine elements of both traditions. Those who do not are likely to be described as extremists of right or left. And those closer to the mainstream of political thought may be called liberal-conservative or conservative-liberal. Such combination terms are by no means strange in political discourse.

Whatever the fate of conservatism, interest in it is at a relatively high level, both as an intellectual exercise and as a direction in practical politics. This interest was rising well before the scandals of Watergate began to shake up the nation's sense of well-being in relation to its leaders and its governmental processes. No doubt the rapid changes of recent years—changes that ranged from the growing complexity of economic and governmental processes to the loosening of popular standards of dress and speech—sharpened the reawakening of interest in conserving traditional values.

Effect on Nixon's Drive Against ‘Welfare State’

The sequence of revelations, charges and countercharges that constitute the Watergate scandals has apparently hampered the administration in its attempts to implement a number of policies favored by conservatives. Watergate may have put a brake, temporarily at least, on the administration's plan to turn the country back from what it considered a trend toward the “welfare state”—a plan dear to the conservative heart since the days of the New Deal. Watergate developments began to unfold at a significant time in regard to this endeavor. At the beginning of his second term in early 1973, President Nixon was all set to push through domestic policies that he had long advocated but on which he had not taken definitive action during his first administration. He had recently attained his immediate foreign policy goal—a cease-fire in Vietnam—and was then ready to push hard toward domestic goals.

One of Nixon's first moves was to dismantle the anti-poverty program as it had been initiated by his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Nixon put a new man, Howard J. Phillips, in charge of the Office of Economic Development, the anti-poverty agency, for the express purpose of tearing down OEO and scattering a few salvaged parts to other government departments. The President also ordered cutbacks in federal spending for social welfare, for aid to public schools, for certain medical-training and medical-service programs, and for other projects.

He began pushing forward on still another policy favored by conservatives: defederalization. He pressed for more revenue-sharing programs to return billions of dollars in federally collected taxes to the states to be spent in broad areas (education, for example) as they saw fit, rather than in accordance with federal standards and federally prescribed purposes. He said that if Congress refused to enact legislation to attain these goals, he would carry his plans out anyway.2

At that time the President exuded confidence and a strong sense of his authority to carry out these policies. His confidence was based on his landslide re-election victory in November 1972, which he interpreted as a mandate for carrying out these policies. Nixon soon put his words to action. He began reorganizing the executive branch to concentrate its power in a “super cabinet” in the White House. Moreover, trusted loyalists were placed in key positions in various departments and agencies.

Since then, the steam has gone out of the administration's crusade against “welfare state-ism.” While other factors played a part, the influence of Watergate cannot be discounted. Watergate deflected the President's attention and stiffened liberal opposition. The “super-cabinet” plan was scrapped in the wake of Watergate developments.3 Lawsuits brought by community-action groups and labor unions succeeded in stopping the dismantling of OEO and forced Phillips out of his post as acting director. Congress blocked efforts to eliminate a number of programs in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Department. The Wall Street Journal, noting signs of compromise and conciliation, commented on Nov. 13, 1973: “Even the most convinced conservative finds Hew's built-in pressures for activism hard to resist.”

Meanwhile, the Nixon vision of “new federalism” grew dimmer. Congress in 1972 had enacted the first of several revenue-sharing programs proposed by the President.4 But there was no rush in Congress to act on other vital parts of the proposal, and there was little evident push for them from the White House during the Watergate era.5 The New York Times reported on Nov. 11, 1973, that the administration was trying to put the “new federalism” back on the track by decentralizing federal departments, another move generally favored by conservatives. The newspaper quoted Frank G. Zarb, assistant director for operations in the White House Office of Management and Budget, as saying that decentralization was “a slow process.”

Conservative Reaction to Watergate Scandals

Watergate events were profoundly disturbing to many conservatives who, while they may never have considered Nixon their ideal for President, nevertheless supported him and looked to him to further many of their favored causes. The dismissal on Oct. 20, 1973, of Archibald Cox as special prosecutor for the Justice Department's Watergate investigation, followed by the abrupt resignations of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus, was a shattering blow to this expectation. The right-wing weekly Human Events commented on Nov. 3 that the Cox firing had “clearly helped to erode the President's support among conservative and modern Republicans at the grass-roots level.” It reported, as did the press generally, that conservative members of Congress were shaken by the large volume of anti-Nixon mail they received from their constituents at that time.

As early as Sept. 12, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R Ariz.), “favorite son” of right-wing Republicanism, had expressed his conviction that “The Watergate scandal is being used by many diehard liberals to try and rescue an outmoded philosophy of government,” He was concerned that “because the Nixon administration is more conservative than liberal…attempts are…being made to try and equate the irregularities of the Watergate affair with conservative principles generally.” Goldwater continued to support Nixon even after the Cox firing. But on Nov. 1, Goldwater said he feared the President's credibility “has reached an all-time low from which he may not be able to recover.” He urged Nixon to appear before the Senate Watergate investigating committee and make available all documents needed to clear doubts in the public mind. The following month, Goldwater described Nixon as an isolated “loner” who has lost the people's trust.6 Another conservative Republican, Sen. Peter H. Dominick of Colorado, spoke of the “crisis of confidence in our leadership.”7

Fear of Presidential Blacksliding on Conservatism

Some conservatives feared that the President, under fire, might try to placate his liberal critics. Howard J. Phillips charged that the President had found it necessary to relent on social welfare policies, “yielding to the preferences of his liberal opponents…in the unrealistic hope of…reducing the opposition of his most bitter liberal enemies.”8 In the lead article of its Nov. 24 edition, Human Events said it was “disconcerting that in the wake of Watergate, the President has been yielding again and again to political foes, to those who did not vote for him in 1972.”

Human Events chided conservative members of Congress for not impressing on the President, during his meetings with legislators at the White House in November, that he had a special need to court their support at a time when he was facing demands for impeachment or resignation.9 It was not fair, the publication said, for the President “to expect conservatives to champion him through the Watergate mess when he…is ignoring his 1972 pledges [on taxes, wage-price controls and other issues].…The President must learn that the price he must pay for conservative backing is the active implementation and support by the administration of conservative programs and policies—the very programs and policies he ran on in last year's campaign.”

Impact on Vice President Agnew's Resignation

If the President's credibility problems were saddening to conservatives, the resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew in disgrace was positively traumatic.10 Agnew's positions on current issues, the blunt manner in which he expressed them, his resounding, rhetorical attacks on liberals and dissenters, and his posture as an upright citizen decrying the disturbers of the peace were all in accord with the very model of the conservative hero. His fall from grace was a bitter loss to the conservative movement. “We have lost a star,” said Rep. John M. Ashbrook (R Ohio). The movement also lost a favored and promising candidate for the presidency in 1976.

The hero was relinquished with reluctance. “Agnew gradually became a symbol for courage, integrity, and morality in a nation wallowing in permissiveness,” wrote Human Events after his fall. “He condemned…lawlessness, the New Morality, and those who openly sided with America's enemies. He emphasized…hard work, individualism, family loyalty, patriotism and strength of character.…While his own character turned out to be seriously flawed, he provided a magnificent service in speaking out as forcefully as he did.”11

William F. Buckley Jr., editor of the right-wing weekly National Review and brother of Sen. James L. Buckley (Conservative-Republican, N.Y.), has cautioned his fellow conservatives not to let Angew's disgrace sway them from upholding positions taken by the former Vice President. Agnew had become so much “the incarnation of law, order, probity and inflexible ethics,” Buckley said, that conservatives were likely to feel that these qualities had fallen with him.

“Mr. Agnew was profoundly right about many of the causes of our decline,” Buckley said. “Though he proved to be a physician who could not heal himself, in his words as uttered over four years there were rocks of truth.” Buckley said it was a high tribute to Agnew's expressed ideals to apply them to Agnew himself, thus proving conservatives were “willing to renounce those who stray from those high standards—even if they are our friends and heroes.”12

Though they miss Agnew, conservatives seemed happy with the choice of Rep. Gerald R. Ford (R Mich.) as his successor.13 In his 25 years in Congress, Ford gained a reputation as a solid conservative. He opposed social measures during the Johnson presidency and supported administration policy during the Nixon presidency. In a review of his voting record, the ultra-conservative Americans for Constitutional Action gave him high marks—as high as 88 per cent “right” in one period and 68 per cent in recent years. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action, on the other hand, gave his 1972 voting record a rating of only 6 per cent, indicating the extent to which he had voted in accordance with liberal wishes.

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Conservative Tradition in American Life

Defining Conservatism: Core Beliefs and Attitude

Conservatism takes many forms, but there is general agreement on certain core elements in the conservative position. Primarily it stands for preservation of something already existent that the conservative considers good—a tradition, a way of life, a governmental system, a prevailing power structure (in politics, economics or society), an economic process, a social or religious practice. The conservative tends to consider the treasured condition or practice as under threat and to consider himself its protector against those who oppose it or are indifferent to its fate.

Most conservatives say they are not opposed to change per se. But they want change to take place gradually with minimal disruption. They believe change should evolve “naturally,” as a consequence of the unfolding of new circumstances of life. Therefore, they resist external pressures to impose or speed up change, and they are particularly suspicious of reformists who seek to improve conditions by imposing institutional or structural changes in the social order. The classic position of the conservative is that such reforms do not produce the expected benefit, or if they do, the success will have been won at too high a price.

The conservative position on change was articulated by Edmund Burke (1729–97), often cited as a founding father of modern conservatism, in his commentaries on the French Revolution. The conservative is said to be a pessimist about the perfect ability of man and skeptical that man's orneriness can be cured by the kind of reforms promoted by the liberal. He relies on tradition and authority, legitimized by past acceptance and the realities of power, to keep man's baser nature reasonably in check. On the crucial issue of liberty versus equality, the conservative is on the side of liberty. He opposes egalitarianism; he favors a stable society with minimal restraints on individual enterprise.

In such a society, he believes, individual worth will find its way up the social scale. He regards government efforts to achieve equalization in society as futile. He is, in fact, opposed to all government intervention in the lives of the people except for those necessary to maintain social order at home and to maintain a strong defense against aggression from abroad.

The conservative is suspicious of government, of government officials, and of the will of the majority. As expressed by Clinton L. Rossiter, a conservative spokesman:

The discretion of men in power must be reduced to the lowest level consistent with effective operation of the political machinery….

Next, power must be diffused and balanced…[This] puts a brake on the urge for wholesale reform….

Finally, a government must be representative.…[This] institutionalizes the urge for aristocracy.…Through these techniques the conservative seeks to limit the influence of majority rule.14

Contemporary American conservatives can usually be identified by their (1) opposition to extensions of government power, (2) their preference for state and local to federal authority, (3) their intense anti-communism that extends to suspicion of domestic left-wing movements and opposition to dealings with Communist nations, (4) support for a strong military establishment, and (5) opposition to the whole bundle of programs lumped together as “welfare state-ism.” Conservatives are by no means unified in their views on these subjects, or alike in the intensity or rigidity of their positions, but these are generally the political positions, which arise out of their basic philosophy and general orientation. Some conservatives adhere to a set of doctrines; others are “instinctive” conservatives.

Tendency to Blur Liberal-Conservative Lines

There is often a blurring of the boundaries between conservatives and liberals. Few men in public office, or few ordinary citizens for that matter, are consistently conservative or liberal on every issue. Most policy formation and legislation represent a compromise between conservative and liberal views. “However much at odds on specific issues,” wrote the historian Richard Hofstadter, “the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, [and] the value of competition….”15

Moreover, conservatism and liberalism have had different meanings in time and place. The liberal, for example, has shifted several times in the course of American history in his attitude toward the expansion of federal functions and the extension of presidential powers. “The formerly liberal creed of laissez-faire individualism, used to limit federal intervention, can now be called ‘conservative,’ commentators in a British journal of politics have observed. They noted that some modern conservatives consider themselves “classical 19th century liberals.”16 Clinton L. Rossiter wrote two decades ago that “It has not always been easy to tell Right from Left.” He noted that both had “shifted ground markedly under the pressures of social advance” and the progressive attacks of one generation have often been the conservative defense of the next.”

The term “conservatism” is said to have been derived from the name of a newspaper, Le Conseruateur, founded in Paris by Francois Chateaubriand (1768–1848) to combat revolutionary ideology. The word came into general usage in England after the Great Reform Act of 1832 and meant opposition to reform.17 Most modern American conservatives trace their forebears to the founding fathers of the nation and even before that to the solid citizens of the colonial establishments. Though they were radicals in England, the Puritans were quintessential conservatives in New England. “Government by the favored few, the primacy of the community, reverence for the established order, aversion to change—these were the marks of the notable political philosophy” that governed the colonies, Rossiter noted.

Question of the Founding Fathers' True Ideology

The early Republicans—anti-Federalist followers of Thomas Jefferson—were conservative in that they sought to preserve a traditional agrarian society with minimal interference from the central government. “Ideally, society for them was a tempered feudalism, a hierarchal structure of mutual obligations and responsibilities in which the ownership of land was a prerequisite for political or social position.”18 Their political outlook re-emerged as a reaction to the wave of nationalism that followed the War of 1812. The “old Republicans” of that period opposed conscription, expansion of the Navy, the national bank and other extensions of federal power.

The “old Republicans,” working as they did against the forces of change in a young, vital, expansionist nation just entering the industrial revolution, soon passed from the scene. But they performed an important function in sustaining certain elements of the conservative tradition that has served as a counterpoint to liberalism throughout American history. Norman K. Risjord, a historian of the movement, calls them “the missing link in the conservative tradition between the anti-Federalists of 1788 and the states' rights southerners of the Jacksonian era.” The old Republicans “kept alive the torch of states' rights and passed it on to the lower South until it was carried into the Civil War….”

The nation was born in a revolution and although some historians call it a “conservative” revolution, most recognize that it was in fact a major upheaval of a kind normally abjured by the conservative temper. Nevertheless it had conservative elements. “The American Revolution was, indeed, a movement to conserve what already existed,” wrote the historian R. R. Palmer. “It was hardly, however, a ‘conservative’ movement…for it was the weakness of conservative forces in 18th-century America, not their strength, that made the American Revolution as moderate as it was.”19

The real conservatives of the revolutionary period were those who remained loyal to the Crown, not all of whom fled the country when the rebels won. Except for freeing the colonies from subservience to the Crown, the American Revolution did not force a revolutionary change in the social structure of the colonies. The U.S. Constitution has served over the years to support both liberal and conservative positions. In some ways it put a conservative check on the more revolutionary Declaration of Independence. The founding fathers themselves were not uniform in their leanings to the right or left.

Effects of Big Business, Depression, New Deal

Conservatism took on a different meaning in the latter part of the 19th century. The conservatism of tradition, of noblesse oblige within a class-structured society, and of agrarian self-reliance, lived on in the cultural consciousness and particularly in the literature of the period. But the liberal-conservative contest was fought primarily in terms of the struggle to control new sources of wealth in the nation. The rising class of industrialists upheld the old conservative doctrine of no governmental intervention, but for different reasons than the anti-Federalists of the past. Though themselves agents of drastic change in the American way of life, the new men of economic power and their political friends became the “conservatives.” They resisted efforts of reformers to change the prevailing system.

The new class structure of wealth and commercial enterprise was served by conservative economics, opposition to government regulation of business, the creed of the individual's right to choose his own course of action, the concept of charity as a matter of personal conscience rather than social obligation, the summoning of divine sanction for the existing structure of society, and the faith that individual merit will find its own way to the top. As various reform movements got under way, the reformers were considered to be on the left while “conservatives” sought to preserve the status quo. Despite the successes of the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, when certain restraints were placed on rugged individualism in the marketplace, the conservative temper prevailed at most of the control points of society.

The New Deal marked a turning point. The shock of the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the depression, created receptivity to new ways of dealing with economic and social problems. Liberal ideas dominated the 1930s and 1940s. These were years of increased government intervention, of the establishment of social security, welfare and public-power programs, of labor union growth and near-universal acceptance of collective bargaining, of vast extensions of federal financing of education and medical research, and of the incorporation of liberal-supported programs and policies into the social structure of the nation. World War II, popularly viewed as a crusade against fascism, which many saw as an extension of right-wing political philosophy, also played a part in the devaluation of conservatism. Postwar bipartisan foreign policy, marked by U.S. participation in the United Nations, was a striking defeat for the political right.

During the 1950s and 1960s, claims of a resurgence of conservatism have appeared and subsided several times, depending on the observer's concept of the meaning of the word. Conservatism, of course, never disappeared. There was a vigorous conservative opposition even in Franklin D. Roosevelt's heyday. A coalition of northern Republican and southern Democratic conservatives in Congress have blocked or delayed much liberal legislation ever since the New Deal days.20 The claim is now being made that conservatism is once more on the upswing.

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Swings in Expectations for Conservatism

Long-Standing Complaints About Nixon Policies

Expectations for conservatism have risen and fallen during the past two decades, usually in response to the drift of everyday politics. When Clinton L. Rossiter wrote Conservatism in America in the early days of the Eisenhower administration, he saw “the revival of conservatism in American politics and culture” and considered it “one of the wonders of the postwar decade.”21 But in 1967, when M. Stanton Evans was writing The Future of Conservatism, he found that “the idea that conservatism had any kind of future at all was considered slightly mad” and most of his friends were “appalled that anyone should be wasting…time” writing a book with that title. The tune changed after Nixon's victory in the 1968 presidential election. “Commentators who once depicted us as a nation of steadfast collectivists are willing to acknowledge, if only to deplore, a rightward thrust to our politics,” Evans wrote in a preface to a paperback edition of the book.22

These shifts were due in large part to reactions to Republican victories and defeats in presidential elections. The defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was particularly distressing in view of his clear positioning on the right. For conservatives have not been entirely pleased with recent Republican Presidents; they simply preferred them to the Democratic opposition. Conservative Republicans in 1952 preferred Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio to Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose political philosophy was unknown. Some conservatives were keenly disappointed that Eisenhower, as President, did not use his leadership to abolish New Deal programs.

Similarly Richard M. Nixon has not been the conservative's ideal President, although he was much preferred to his opponents in the three presidential campaigns in which he ran (1960, 1968, 1972). Nixon's efforts at reconciliation with the Soviet Union and mainland China were shocking to the conservative community, particularly in view of his earlier record as a crusader against communism and Democratic “softness on communism.” Conservative journals began complaining soon after he took office that he had shifted somewhat to the left. William F. Buckley Jr., for example, observed in April 1969 that the previous summer Nixon had suggested it was not the ideal time to place faith in an anti-nuclear proliferation treaty. “Six months later President Nixon routinely sent the treaty on through for ratification,” Buckley added, complaining ironically that “somewhere along the line the word had gone out…that it had become vulgar to raise one's voice against the Communists.”23

Nor have conservatives been pleased with some of Nixon's actions on domestic problems. According to Jeffrey Bell, a conservative spokesman who worked in the 1968 Nixon election campaign, the disappointing results of the 1970 congressional elections convinced the President's advisers that “conservatism is unmarketable.” But the real fault. Bell said, was that Nixon had been following “moderately liberal policies” that “had been obscured by a cloud of hard-line conservative rhetoric.” So chagrined was the “conservative establishment,” he said, that a group which included himself and William F. Buckley Jr. persuaded Rep. John Ashbrook (R Ohio), a conservative, to run against Nixon in the 1972 New Hampshire, Florida and California primaries.

The trial run for conservatism was a disastrous failure: it won no support from major conservative officeholders. Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, Sens. Goldwater and John Tower (R Texas) “campaigned actively for Nixon and portrayed the President's leftward initiatives as sound conservative doctrine,” Bell complained. “To listen to these men,” he wrote, “conservative voters would think Nixon had governed about as far to the right as any President can.…At least for the time being, it was clear that Nixon had taken the party's conservative voters with him on his Long March to the Left.”24

Nixon's espousal of the Family Assistance Plan—in effect a guaranteed income proposal to supplant the present welfare system to aid the needy—was particularly disturbing to conservatives as an indication the President was becoming too receptive to liberal ideas. Daniel P. Moynihan, the Harvard sociologist and former presidential aide who is credited with “selling” the President on the plan, has said that Nixon is “not right wing.” “In office,” Moynihan continued, “he was doggedly centrist….”25

Just as conservatives preferred Taft in 1952 and Goldwater in 1964, there were others in 1968 who would have suited them better than Nixon. The American Conservative Union's newsletter, The Republican Battle Line, wrote in August 1970: “For the first time political observers have noticed a private, though not yet public, willingness on the part of the southern GOP leaders to admit they may have been mistaken in backing Nixon over Gov. Ronald Reagan [of California] in 1968.”

‘New Majority’ Wage Earner as a Conservative

Claims that conservatism is resurgent in American politics are based in large part on analyses of the electorate that indicate the end of the old Democratic coalition put together by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the emergence of a “new majority” favoring conservative policies. The cracking of the oneparty system in the South is an important part of the new alignment, as conservatives in that region move into the Republican Party.26 A still more vital part is the growth of a new middle class composed of the wage-earning segment of the population that moved up from its precarious economic position during the 1930s to relative affluence and stability. The changing character of the labor movement and organized labor's standing with the public reflect this shift. To be pro-labor is no longer the touchstone of liberalism, and good unionists are no longer necessarily liberals.

The now-familiar argument is that a large class of Americans who once eagerly embraced New Deal reforms now has something to conserve and is much less partial to liberal reforms that would upset their favored position. The liberal reforms of the New Deal have by now been incorporated into the established order; it is no longer particularly liberal to support them, and to oppose them might label one not a conservative but a right-wing radical or extremist.

Elections on Nov. 6, 1973, raised doubt as to how firmly the “new majority” is wedded to the Republican Party. The voters placed Democratic mayors in Minneapolis, New York and Philadelphia and rebuffed two Republican governors who are leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. Gov. Reagan of California suffered defeat of his proposal for a constitutional amendment to limit state tax collections and spending. Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York was unable to win approval of a $3.5 billion transportation bond issue.27

Post-election analyses indicated that the core of the “new majority”—the blue-collar suburban ethnic—is drifting back to the Democratic fold in the wake of Watergate. In its post election commentary, Human Events said on Nov. 17 that “while Republicans were losing because of Watergate…the issues which gained them a landslide win in 1972 were far from being repudiated.…Candidates across the country, whether Democrat or Republican, were…out campaigning for …lower taxes, law and order, and neighborhood schools.”

Neo-Conservatives and Liberal Disillusionment

Political decisions will, no doubt, continue to be made on a pragmatic basis, which means they will reflect the necessities of changing circumstances. That usually adds up to a fairly liberal stance. But conservatism, if viewed as a general outlook on life rather than as a set of policy positions on particular issues, has a lot going for it. For one thing, it is a truism that most people are inherently conservative in that they tend to resist change unless their situation is unbearable.

While energy shortages and resulting economic difficulties could force government action hostile to conservative ideals, so far the public shows little inclination to push in that direction. Most of the evidence of American history shows that despite an openness to moderate reforms, the people have little taste for drastic change. No radical party to the right or the left has ever gained more than fringe support. The winners are almost always middle of the readers; the ruling influence is a broad middle area where liberal and conservative ideas mix or drift toward a consensus.

Disillusionment over the failure of past reforms to solve social problems has boosted the conservative argument against liberal nostrums. The persistence of poverty, the growth of welfare rolls despite the maturation of Social Security, the decay of housing for the poor and the deepening malaise of the inner cities all have caused a number of liberal stalwarts to have second thoughts. From the ranks of disappointed liberals has arisen a new faction sometimes referred to as “the neo-conservatives.” The names of Daniel Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, the sociologist, and Irving Kristol, co-editor (with Daniel Bell) of The Public Interest quarterly, are mentioned in this connection. It was a triumph for conservatives when Glazer wrote about “the limits of social policy,” saying he was concerned that “social policy…creates new and unmanageable demands.”28

The prestige of conservatism has gained a great deal from the emergence of witty, urbane, literate propounders of its message. This may be dated from the publication in 1951 of God and Man at Yale by the 28-year-old William F. Buckley Jr., who subsequently became a favorite on radio and television talk shows and on the lecture circuit. The founding shortly thereafter of National Review by Buckley and his associates has provided a respected foil for liberal journalism. Buckley and others who have turned out a large number of books over the past two decades presenting the philosophic arguments for conservatism have given intellectual tone to the movement. They have labored with some success to dispel the image of the conservative as a materialist or self-interested businessman and to resurrect the image of the conservative as a moral, humane and intellectual aristocrat. It might even be said that they have made it “chic” to be a conservative, or at least not un-chic to be one.29

Above all, pulling for conservatism, is the desire of ordinary people for more stability and tranquility and safety in their daily lives, a longing associated more with the conservative than with the liberal tradition. “The new radicalism, rising on liberalism's left…unsafe streets, unruly youth, dirty movies, spreading use of drugs, are all doing their bit to win converts to conservatism,” wrote A. James Reichley in Fortune.30

Suzannah Lessard, a liberal in that she favors government efforts to improve the life of its citizens, still admits to the appeal of conservatism after “the continual agitation and crisis” of recent years. “The conservative reminds the liberal that all the equality, education, opportunity and financial security will be poor comfort if the culture is destroyed,” she writes.31 The best hope for conservatism would seem to be that it continue to remind the nation of the eternal verities and thus to serve as a check on over-zealous liberal reformers. Practical politics no doubt will continue to pay obeisance to both.

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Abrams, Richard M., Conservatism in a Progressive Era, Harvard University Press, 1964.

Bell, Daniel, The Radical Right, Doubleday & Co., 1963.

Buckley, William F. Jr., The Governor Listeth, G. P. Putnam's Sons. 1970.

Evans, M. Stanton,The Future of Conservatism, Doubleday & Co. 1969.

Guttmann, Allen, The Conservative Tradition in America, Oxford University Press, 1967.

Hart, Jeffrey. The American Dissent: A Decade of Modern Conservatism, Doubleday & Co., 1966.

Hofstadter, Richard, The American Political Tradition, 1967.

Kendall, Willmore, The Conservative Affirmation, Henry Regenery Co., 1963.

Lowi, J. Theodore, The End of Liberalism, W. W. Norton and Co., 1969.

McEvoy, James III, Radical or Conservatives: The Contemporary American Right, Rand McNally & Co., 1971.

Meyer, Frank S., The Conservative Mainstream, Arlington House, 1969.

Meyer, Frank S., What is Conservatism? Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Patterson James T., Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal, University of Kentucky Press, 1967.

Phillips, Kevin P., The Emerging Republican Majority, Arlington House, 1969.

Risjord, Norman K., The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson, Columbia University Press, 1965.

Rossiter, Clinton, Conservatism in America, Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.


Bell, Jeffrey, “Mr. Nixon's Sometime Friends,” The Nation, July 24, 1972.

Berger, Peter L., “Two Paradoxes,” National Review, May 12, 1972.

“Conservatism, Liberalism, and National Issues” (symposium). The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 1962.

Goldsmith, M. M., and Michael Hawkins, “The New American Conservatism,” Political Studies, March 1972.

Hart, Jeffrey, “Peter Berger's Paradox,” National Review, May 12, 1972.

Harrington, Michael, “The Welfare State and Its Neo-conservative Critics,” Dissent, fall 1973.

Lessard, Suzannah, “Civility, Community, Humor: The Conservatism We Need,” The Washington Monthly, July-August 1973.

Phillips, Kevin, “Conservative Chic,” Harper's, June 1973.

Reichley, A. James, “Conservatism May Have a Future After All,” Fortune, July 1972.

Royster, Vermont, “American Politics: 1932–1972,” The American Scholar, spring 1973.


Editorial Research Reports, “Future of Liberalism,” 1971 Vol. II, p. 717; “Presidential Accountability,” 1973 Vol. I, p. 165; “Presidential Reorganization,” 1973 Vol. II, p. 523; “Presidential Impeachment,” 1973 Vol. II, p. 925.

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[1] See “Future of Liberalism,” E.R.R., 1971 Vol. II, p. 717.

[2] See “Presidential Accountability,” E.R.R., 1973 Vol. 1, pp. 165–184.

[3] See “Presidential Reorganization.” E.R.R., 1973 Vol. II, p. 523.

[4] The State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972, a general revenue-sharing measure that called for a return to the states of $30 billion over five years. The President in 1971 and again in 1972 also asked for special revenue-sharing legislation to provide funds for six broad purposes: education, urban development, rural development, law enforcement, transportation, and manpower training.

[5] See Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, Dec. 15, 1973, p. 3301.

[6] Interview with Godfrey Sperling Jr. in The Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 18, 1973.

[7] Speech to the Denver Bar Association, Nov. 5, 1973.

[8] “Inside Washington,” Human Events, Nov. 3, 1973, p. 3.

[9] See “Presidential Impeachment,” E.R.R., 1973 Vol. II. p. 925.

[10] Agnew resigned on Oct. 10, 1973 and pleaded no contest in a federal court in Baltimore to a charge of income tax evasion. He had agreed to make this plea and to resign in return for a reduced charge and recommendation of leniency. As part of the agreement a lengthy statement detailing other criminal charges against him drawn from information developed by a grand jury, was submitted to the court. Agnew was sentenced to three years' unsupervised probation and fined $10.000.

[11] “Conservatives Lose a Hero,” Human Events, Oct. 20. 1973. p. 5.

[12] William F. Buckley Jr., speech to the New York Conservative Party. New York City, Oct. 15, 1973.

[13] Under the 25th Amendment, a vacancy in the vice presidency is filled by presidential appointment, subject to congressional approval. President Nixon announced his choice of Rep. Ford at a ceremonial gathering in the White House on Oct. 12. 1973. Ford received congressional approval and was sworn in on Dec. 6.

[14] Clinton L. Rossiter, Conservatism in America (1955). pp. 32–34.

[15] Richard Hofstadter. The American Political Tradition (1957), p. xii.

[16] M. M. Goldsmith and Michael Hawkins, “The New American Conservatism,” Political Studies (journal of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom) March 1972, p. 62.

[17] Jasper B. Shannon. “Conservatism.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 1962, p. 14.

[18] Norman K. Risjord. The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jackson (1965), p. 3.

[19] R. R. Palmer. The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Vol. I (1959). p. 188.

[20] See James T. Patterson's Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal (1967).

[21] Clinton Rossiter. op. cit. p. 2.

[22] M. Stanton Evans. The Future of Conservatism (1969), p. ix.

[23] William F. Buckley Jr., “The New Conservatism.” reprinted from The New York Times in The Governor Listeth(1970).

[24] Jeffrey Bell, “Mr. Nixon's Sometimes Friends,” The Nation, July 24. 1972, pp. 42–46.

[25] Daniel P. Moynihan. The Politics of a Guáranteed Income (1973). p. 368.

[26] According to Vermont Royster, the New Deal coalition of southern Democrats, northern urban bosses, labor unions, farmers, minority groups and liberal intellectuals has been crumbling since it reached its peak in 1936. “For the past quarter of a century the nation has been…on a political teeter totter board, the balance being easily shifted from one election to the next by the vagaries of circumstances.”—“American Politics: 1932–1972,” The American Scholar, spring 1973, p. 212,

[27] Rockefeller resigned as governor Dec. 18 in what was regarded as the opening move of a quest for the presidency in 1976. Rockefeller said he wanted to devote more time to two national study commissions of which he is chairman—the Commission on Critical Choices for American and the National Commission on Water Quality.

[28] Nathan Glazer. “The Limits of Social Policy,” Commentary. September 1971, p. 52. Michael Harrington, credited with having inspired the anti-poverty program with his book The Other America (1962). counters Glazer's position in “The Welfare Mate and Its Neo conservative Critics,” Dissent, fall 1973, pp. 435–463.

[29] See “Conservative Chic” by Kevin P. Phillips in Harper's. June 1973. pp. 66–70. Phillips is author of The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) which drew the attention of President Nixon and gave currency to the phrase “new majority.”

[30] A. James Reichley. “Conservatism May Have a Future After All.” Fortune. July 1972. p. 44.

[31] Suzannah Lessard. “Civility, Community and Humor: The Conservatism We Need. The Washington Monthly. July-August 1973. p. 21.

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Special Focus

Republican Decline

The Gallup organization reported that in October 1973 it found the percentage of voters who classified themselves as Republicans—24 per cent—at one of the lowest points yet recorded. The figure was 4 per cent lower than at the time of the 1972 presidential election. The percentage of voters who called themselves Democrats was the same (43 per cent) as during the election campaign.

Mood of the Nation

A Gallup survey in November 1973 on “the mood of the nation” found a widespread lack of faith in American institutions and declining confidence in the way the nation was being governed. Similar findings were reported by Louis Harris and Associates in a survey it conducted for the Senate Government Operations Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations.

Political Philosophy

In June 1971, Gallup asked a sampling of Americans to describe their political philosophy in one of five categories. The results were:

Very conservative 11 per cent Fairly liberal 19 per cent
Fairly conservative 28 per cent Very liberal 7 per cent
Middle-of-the road 29 per cent No opinion 6 per cent

A similar question was asked of college students in February 1972. Here is how they evaluated themselves:

Far left 6 per cent Right 12 per cent
Left 29 per cent Far right 1 per cent
Middle-of-the road 49 per cent Cannot say 3 per cent

As for the American public s evaluation of President Nixon s political philosophy, Gallup recorded the following opinion in May 1972: Very conservative, 19 per cent; fairly conservative 32 per cent; middle-of-the-road, 24 per cent; fairly liberal, 10 per cent; very liberal, 5 per cent; no opinion, 10 per cent.

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Document APA Citation
Shaffer, H. B. (1974). Future of conservatism. Editorial research reports 1974 (Vol. I). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1974010400
Document ID: cqresrre1974010400
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1974010400
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